Kerala's megalithic past: A cry in the wilderness

Anand P

Special Story | Part 1

Kudakallu (Umbrella Stone) | Photo :Arranged

For centuries, humans have tried to commemorate, pay respect to, or idolise the dead in various manners, often leaving contemporary historians, archaeologists and students to study and shed some light on civilisations built colossus structures like Pyramids, Assam's Charaideo Maidams or Ireland's Newgrange.

Such burial sites hold key to past civilisation --unwritten or lost in time-- awaiting brilliant minds to unravel the history. However, not every site is fortunate enough to be brought under protected monuments or be developed as tourist destinations. If we look closer, India is a citadel of civilisations, each submerged over another, sometimes buried in unfathomable depths, often leaving historians scratching their heads. Even now to a great extent, our history depends heavily on foreigners' accounts or excavations.

In such a scenario, it is very important to discuss the condition of tens of thousands of burial sites of varying proportions found across the country, especially in Kerala.

Social scientist and noted historian Rajan Gurukkal explains that the burial sites in Kerala shed light on Kerala's unknown history that could even debunk tales of Parashurama, the sixth avatar among the Dashavatara of the preserver god Vishnu, creating the southern state using a bloodstained axe thrown into the sea from Gokarna.

An old photograph of noted writer and freedom fighter Kovilan sitting near the Munimada | Mathrubhumi

Buried in the backyard, paddy fields, or standing atop hilly terrains, these massive stone structures remain a subject of numerous local lores. A sense of antiquarian sensibility has prevented the ruin of many megalith burial sites in Kerala. However, the dwindling numbers of such structures show how a slow and steady death is falling upon monuments constructed to commemorate death or memorialise the dead.

As the term ‘megalith’ (mega: huge; lith: stone) suggests, these monuments use large stone blocks in the construction and are remnants of the Iron Age. Interestingly, the megalith monuments in Kerala are used as burial structures.

Rajan Gurukkal | Mathrubhumi

Leading social scientist and historian Rajan Gurukkal exclaimed that often there is a popular misconception among many people to associate such structures with Stone Age.

"These burial structures have their origin in the 'Iron Age'. However, people often attribute it to the 'Stone Age'. The structures were burial sites to commemorate tribal leaders, kings or chieftains, not for the commoners. The burial sites vary owing to native topography, availability of materials and other factors. The abundance of granite led to the construction of small and large dolmens above ground and cists underground in the hilly terrains. However, the structures found in plains are of laterite stones," Rajan Gurukkal said.

These burial sites have been found in different forms, namely hood stones (kudakkallu), hat stones (thoppikkallu), muthumakkathazhi (nannangadi), muniyara, pandavakuzhi, kalmesha, kalvrithangal and nadukallu.

Kudakkallu | Photo: Arranged / Nandakumar Koroth

Kudakkallu , commonly seen across the state, contains curvilinear blocks installed on the ground, with a hollow space in between and an umbrella-shaped rock atop. In the case of Thoppikallu burial, an umbrella-shaped rock will be placed over the ground.

Nannangadi found in Kozhikode | Mathrubhumi

'Muthumakkathazhi' or 'Nannangadi' (Burial urns) is another form of megalithic burial monument in which the corpse is buried in a big urn. These urns were unearthed in several coastal areas in Kerala.

K K Muhammed

Noted archaeologist and Padma Shri awardee K K Muhammed noted that Kudakkallu and Thoppikallu sites in Kerala are unique burial structures not found anywhere else. Therefore, studying, documenting and preserving them is not just a matter of archaeological importance but also a way of understanding the megalithic civilisation in Kerala.

Sadly, megalithic structures are fast disappearing, and we are long losing an ample opportunity to learn, embrace and augment our unknown history.

Kerala and its unrecorded megalith past

Megalithism, or the art of using huge stones to depict sites of sacred pagan monuments, prevailed among the Pre-Dravidian tribes of Kerala and other parts of India. Several studies and historians contradict the origin of dolmens and how it came to the country.

MG Sasibhooshan |

"There are many unpreserved Kudakallu sites in Kerala. Much has been lost owing to ignorance and lack of preservation. Every historian wants to see such structures as a corridor to unravel the ancient history of Kerala and conserve it," says noted historian MG Sasibhooshan.

Sasibhooshan remarked that the Kerala Archeology department's mapping of Megalith monuments in Kerala remained incomplete. As a result, no government entity could estimate the number of such monuments in the state.

"Archaeologists have excavated many 'Kudakallu' (umbrella stones) in the Thrissur district. In the past, William Lohgan, who authored the book 'Malabar Manual', has carried out large-scale excavations in the Kozhikode district. Years later, renowned anthropologist A Ayyappan excavated the megalith monuments near Feroke, Kozhikode. Both have agreed in principle that umbrella stones in Kerala had an origin somewhere between 100 BC and 300 AD. Scythes, household implements, and agricultural weapons unearthed from these burial sites indicated that the civilisation during the period knew how to extract iron from ore, a skill, we must understand that was unknown to the Indus Valley Civilization," Sasibhooshan said.

The destruction of Kudakkallu due to laterite mining in Berikkulam (Top Left ), Kudakkallu found in Modern Bazar near Koduvally (Top Right) | Photo: Arranged/Mathrubhumi/Nandakumar Koroth

At the same time, historians agree that the absence of detailed studies into megalithic structures has left more unanswered questions instead of answers. In Kerala, for instance, the megalith structures exist in various forms, shapes and arrangements.

Its importance and uniqueness paved the way for certain localities to be named after 'Kudakallu' structures. For example, there is a place called Kudakallu in the Thrissur district, named due to the presence of Kudkallu here. However, none of them exists here today.

"During my bus journey to Thiruvananthapuram from Kozhikode, I used to see an umbrella stone structure in the middle of the road at Kakkad. But now it is missing. Many such Kudakallu structures do not exist anymore. Often stones are destroyed under the illusion that valuables such as gold were buried underneath," Sasibhooshan said.

Alcohol bottles dumped inside 'Pandava Guha' in Kariyad ( Kannur ) | Photo: Arranged / Nandakumar Koroth

The destruction of the Kodakkal Megalithic site in Perambra, in Kozhikode, is one of the best examples to show how human ignorance and lack of awareness could lead to the defacement of unprotected monuments.

Dr. Rajesh K.P

"Many sites mentioned in my research paper do not exist today. One such site is located in Kodakkal in Perambra. In 2011, the existing plot owner hired a JCB bulldozer, crushed the Kodakkal structures here, and demolished the entire site to sell the plot. After protests from locals, the police took the bulldozer and driver into custody. Since the site was not included in the list of protected archaeological sites, the police did not move to the further procedure to register a case," said Rajesh KP, who visited Perambra in 2010 to examine a cluster of 'mushroom type laterite umbrella stones' first discovered during an excavation by KJ John in 1979.

Archaeologist K K Muhammed cited the example of the destruction of 'Kudakallu' structures near Guruvayurappan College in Kozhikode.

Meanwhile, laterite stone mining ruined megalithic umbrella stones in Kolathur village of Bedadukka grama panchayat, Kasaragod district.
Nandakumar Koroth, a history teacher at Nehru Arts and Science College, who had taken part in the conservation of several megalithic structures in the Kasaragod district, pointed out that numerous structures survive only due to the mercy of property owners.

A Kudakkalu burial site in poor condition in Kasaragod | Photo: Arranged / Mathrubhumi

"In some places, people vandalise such dolmens believing that artefacts of gold are buried beneath the stone structures. However, a majority of people who recover such sites in their properties wish to keep it secret in fear that government would acquire their lands. Often they destroy such findings without recognising its historic significance," he said.

Nandakumar Koroth

The 'snake and tiger' engravings, a megalithic art, believed to be carved by people before the 3rd BCE on the Laterite bed of a natural reservoir near Nileshwaram, were ravaged in the belief that the place contained hidden treasures.

Like in Northern Kerala, a town in the Idukki district called Marayoor is known for thousands of dolmenoid cists (burial chambers made of four stones placed on edges and covered by a fifth one called the cap stone) and is also known as Muniyaras. Despite its historical significance, the area remains unprotected and under-studied.

Muniyara ( Dolmens) in Marayoor | Photo: Arranged/ Benny Kurian

Benny Kurian

"The dolmen structures in Marayoor are quite unique. The Muniyaras identified prominently on a hilltop --now named Muniyanpara-- near GHSS Marayoor are unique. However, these structures are exposed to tourists unchecked. Further, the jeeps regularly operate services to the top of the hill, often passing closer to such structures. These sites will soon disappear if authorities fail to launch measures to protect them. Tourist's trespasses after fences constructed here to protect more than 50 dolmens got damaged," says Benny Kurian, who studied extensively about Megalithic monuments in the Idukki district.

The terrible condition of Muniyara ( Dolmens) in Marayoor | Photo: Arranged / Benny Kurian

Over the years, respective authorities, including Marayoor Panchayat and elected representatives, announced various projects to protect the area. However, these promises remain on paper as these megalithic structures cry for help as it lies buried beneath tons of scraps left by visitors.

To be continued...

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